The role of hydrogen in the climate puzzle

It could be transformative for the UK’s economy

January 22, 2021
The UK’s potential for wind generation puts us in prime position to be a major producer of “green” hydrogen. © Phil Rees/Shutterstock
The UK’s potential for wind generation puts us in prime position to be a major producer of “green” hydrogen. © Phil Rees/Shutterstock

Everyone is talking about hydrogen. The German government announced last year that it will invest €9 billion in its hydrogen industry. The EU has a hydrogen strategy, as do Australia, China, Korea, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and many others. The UK is working on its own, to be published in the spring, after the Climate Change Committee (CCC)—the advisory body of which I am Deputy Chair—identified a need, by 2050, for hydrogen use at a scale comparable to our existing electricity system. That gives 30 years to develop a major new UK industry. It’s all very exciting, but hydrogen isn’t a magic bullet for reducing our emissions: we must use it sparingly.

A successful path to net zero starts with energy efficiency, minimising the amount of energy we use overall—for example by insulating homes and using more public transport. After energy efficiency, we look to electrification: heat pumps, electric cars and vans, electric furnaces for steelmaking. By 2030 we will have an almost fully decarbonised electricity system, and electrification is generally the most efficient way to provide power.

Hydrogen, meanwhile, should be a “last resort.” This is because its production is energy intensive. Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen is not present in sufficient quantities in the natural environment for us to use. So instead, it has to be made. We produce so-called “blue” hydrogen by reacting methane with steam, producing significant quantities of CO2 which must be captured and stored if we are to hit net zero goals. “Green” hydrogen is produced by electrolysing water using zero carbon electricity. These energy intensive processes mean hydrogen is always going to be relatively expensive.

But some industrial processes are difficult or impossible to electrify. We will not be able to insulate all of our historic building stock enough for a heat pump alone to keep us comfortable in winter. The weight of batteries needed to power a long haul articulated truck doesn’t look realistic. These are the kinds of scenarios where hydrogen comes in: when we have exhausted other options. And we will certainly need it, both here and globally.

What’s more, here in the UK we have some real advantages for producing it. We have some of the best offshore wind resources in the world around our shores, estimated at around 800GW, far more than we need to hit our 2030 and 2050 wind power targets. Recent analysis by the CCC and the Energy Systems Catapult indicates that a very high renewables electricity system, such as the one we will have by 2050, will be capable of generating electricity at quite a lot of times when we don’t need it—indeed, up to 30 per cent of the time. 

[su_pullquote]“Hydrogen is not a magic bullet, but with the right strategy, it could transform our energy mix”[/su_pullquote]

This “spare generation” can be used to produce green hydrogen, with excess hydrogen exported to European neighbours with less wind resource. In terms of blue hydrogen, our advantage is geology—depleted oilfields and other geological formations suitable for permanent storage of huge quantities of CO2.

The UK’s advantages go beyond geography and geology. The development of a hydrogen industry offers us what we have missed in the success of offshore wind—the opportunity to be a major player in the delivery of original equipment for the industry, both for supply and demand. The UK is home to growing companies making electrolysers, fuel cells, innovative hydrogen storage solutions, hydrogen buses, and hydrogen boilers, to name just a few.

Alongside this, our commitment to net zero and the offshore wind and carbon storage capability will attract inward investment for hydrogen production and use.All of this is supported by a strong academic base in electrochemistry, materials and energy systems for the hydrogen economy.

So hydrogen may be no magic bullet, but with the right strategy and careful application, it could be transformative. The opportunity is there for the UK to develop a major new industry for its production, use and export, providing jobs and economic growth across the UK, and especially in coastal and manufacturing areas. This is an opportunity we must not miss.

This article features in Prospect’s new “Green Recovery” report, published in partnership with SNC Lavalin, Atkins, Ricardo and the Aerospace Technology Institute. Read the full report PDF here.